Andrew Watson, the Anglican Bishop of Guildford, must be a pretty remarkable chap. He was among those young people at a Christian holiday camp in the late 1970s and early 1980s who have now spoken out about enduring brutal beatings from John Smyth, now a retired QC. These terrible assaults were apparently supposed to help the recipients get rid of their pride and become holy. Most people who had been through that would hate the Church and turn their backs on it, but instead Andrew Watson became a bishop.
What John Smyth was running at that Iwerne Trust camp seems to have been nothing less than a cult, which ensnared the young to keep them coming back for more. That is well demonstrated by one Cambridge student, who, it has been reported, at the age of 21 tried to commit suicide when promised another beating. Why not just say no? Why not cut off all dealings with the brute? Only someone truly in the grip of another’s power could feel the choice was between obedience and death.
As usual there are the allegations of cover-up by the Church and other institutions, and equally as usual nobody is looking at the context of the times. It was an age in which caning in schools was normal. It was not outlawed in state schools until 1986 and in private schools until 1998. In many public schools prefects were allowed to administer corporal punishment. In primary schools children were regularly smacked across the hands with a ruler. The Isle of Man was still using corporal punishment in its judicial system as late as 1976.
One boy I knew went to a Catholic boarding school where misbehaving pupils would be given the choice between the cane and lines. They always chose the cane because otherwise their fellow- pupils would jeer at them for being cissies.
Of course excessive caning, as was the case here, was never acceptable, not even if it was applied to nasty bullies, but my point is that physical punishment per se would not have raised eyebrows at that time.
Nevertheless, how could Smyth have convinced these intelligent teenagers to believe that anything so vicious was being done in the name of Christ? How could anything so brutal stem from the teachings of the merciful, forgiving character who wandered the Holy Land preaching love and peace? Well, maybe the Church itself didn’t help. For centuries monks “mortified the flesh” with floggings or hairshirts. To be sure, it had all changed by the 1980s, but it is worth remembering that some members of Opus Dei practise self-flagellation to this day. The connection between pain and purification was there in the history of a thousand saints.
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